I often wonder why I did not hesitate to return to Vietnam after a disastrous first experience. My body and mind were just recuperating from the assailing insults, yet I felt like I had just walked to the edge of a cliff, and at that moment I felt alive. Quite often, I realized, outer storm mirrors inner tempest, a window into one’s inner being. Curious, I found myself asking team members the same question: “Why are you going to Vietnam for medical mission?”
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Explore This IssueJuly 2009
Vietnamese-American expatriates traveled with PV in different capacities, as physicians in all subspecialties, pharmacists, dentists, therapists, engineers, and volunteers of various backgrounds. There is a pervading feeling of coming home, of reaching out to Vietnamese people. Many of us planned this annual trek with feverish anticipation, took vacation time from our regular jobs, saved money to pay for airline tickets, the land-based operation, lodging, and meals, in addition to medications, surgical supplies, and medical materials such as books, CD-ROMs, and prepared lectures.
A few kept returning to Vietnam despite unrelenting frustration, anger, misunderstanding, occasional poor lodging, missed trains, flights, and last-minute training-program cancellations or teams reassignments. There were numerous other medical specialists who went with PV, but left the team halfway through the two-week duration or were so shocked by the poverty that they left poorer than before the PV encounter.
In November 2005, I led the training team to Can-Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. We planned to teach emergency medicine and trauma care at Can-Tho General Hospital and Can-Tho Children’s Hospital. Lectures were sent ahead to the Saigon School of Medicine to be translated into Vietnamese. Two volunteers succeeded in planning a decent schedule. However, I never had pre-trip contact with any of the Vietnamese counterparts in Can-Tho. As the bus carrying twenty of us neared Can-Tho, I called our contact on my cell phone to announce our arrival and to locate our hotel, only to find that there were two hotels of the same name, Ninh-Kieu, overlooking the Mekong River. I thought to myself, “Here we go again.”
The bustling life in the Delta rises and falls rhythmically with Mekong tides, alternatively raging and relaxing in chorus. Likewise, I spent my days interviewing and identifying team members’ strengths and weaknesses, coordinating with hospital officials for the two conferences conducted at the two hospitals simultaneously, delegating tasks of translation, of scouting for lodging and restaurants suitable for the team’s needs. Like an empty sack of rice, my body was washed from shore to shore, my mind stood still like a rudder to navigate through these rushing alluvial waters, and my emotions and sensations deposited like sediment in my mind to be processed later.